Thousands of protestors have picketed the Polish parliament and Presidential Palace since 16 December 2016. The public protests are in solidarity with approximately two dozen opposition members of parliament who have blockaded the parliamentary chamber with a sit-in protest. The sit-in forced the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) to vote on new budgetary measures in a different room of the parliament. This is the first time such a vote has taken place outside of the parliamentary chamber since Poland left the Soviet Union and regained democracy in 1989. The public protestors are reported to be chanting “freedom, equality, democracy” and a number of reports describe that the protestors are brandishing the constitution.
The protests are in reaction to recent laws passed by the ruling PiS party, who are reforming press laws. The new legislation, due to come into force in the new year, restricts the number of journalists that will be allowed into the parliament at any one time and limits the recording and broadcasting of parliament to five select television networks. The opposition parties and public protestors claim that these moves aim to restrict the freedom of the press in reporting on the government and lawmakers. Both government and public protestors further claim that such reforms are unconstitutional and anti-democratic. In reports by the BBC, Donald Tusk, European Council President and former Polish Prime Minister, stated that without media oversight, “democracy becomes dictatorship.”
Mariusz Balaszczak, Polish Interior Minister, called the opposition parties’ blockade of the parliament an “illegal attempt to seize power.” President Andrzej Duda, who is aligned with the ruling party, has spent Monday mediating with opposition and government members of parliament in an attempt to brooch the impasse.
The recent legislation is not the first instance of PiS seeking to make reforms to centralize power. The populist, right-wing party came to power in the national elections in October 2015 and has since used its parliamentary majority to reform supposedly independent bodies, such as the security forces, the civil service, and the constitutional court. In January it passed legislation that took control of appointing the heads of the state media away from the media supervisory committee and placed the power with the government.
Poland’s moves towards a more illiberal form of democracy is of concern to the European Union. Since the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008-9, the EU has been besieged by crisis and controversy. The GFC almost precipitated Greece’s exit from the Union in protest against austerity measures proposed by the European Parliament, which gave way to the Euro Zone crisis, an EU-wide financial crisis. Since then, the EU has suffered the shock of the Brexit referendum, a move toward illiberal government with the election of Viktor Orban in Hungary, and the ‘refugee crisis,’ which has put particular strain on the EU’s commitment to open borders and the championing of human rights. With the spectre of a far-right populist president in France, the EU cannot afford to lose Poland, the sixth largest EU economy, a Russian border state, and a pivotal NATO member. Poland represents the largest, most successful post-Soviet member of the EU. If Poland were to move away from the core values of the Union toward illiberal democracy, far-right populism or dictatorship, it would surely signal the failure of the European Union project to protect Europe from repeating the political course that led to the second world war, and be a significant blow to liberal democracy as an ideology.